Server Side Ad Stitching Finds A Home In Live and Catch-up
Server-side ad insertion has normally been about tackling the problems of ad blocking and device fragmentation. But we are now seeing platform shifts that change the sweet spot of ad stitching towards live and catch up TV. Client side ad SDKs have grown in sophistication, the platforms they run have become more capable and the transition to native apps brings tools for platform normalization. This enables publishers to deliver VOD client side ads very effectively. Even with these improvements, client SDKs don’t deliver a live broadcast experience for live or catch up TV. This shift to focus on live imposes some additional requirements outside of ad stitching’s traditional ad block and device fragmentation coverage, such as frame accurate inserts, and high performance in a real-time live broadcast environment.
To frame the discussion it’s important to understand why client side fulfillment is desirable in the first place. Fulfilling ads on the client satisfies two main areas user authenticity and interactivity. Interactive components, such as clickable ads, companions can largely be accomplished with more complex server side ad stitching solutions but as the client side SDK grows in complexity, publishers are quickly left asking why they are not using a client side SDK in the first place. This problem is mostly negated where the player and ad stitching are coming from the same vendor since they will be pre-integrated. Authenticity methods are more difficult to satisfy server side since hybrid systems only give you partial coverage if the server is ultimately making the fulfillment request on behalf of the user.
In a recent discussion I had with Michael Dale at Kaltura, which just announced an ad-stitching collaboration with WeatherNationTV, we discussed why the traditional strong points of ad stitching are losing favor. As Michael pointed out, while ad blocking tools have increased in capability, their ability to target closed platforms such as OTT streaming devices and native applications on iOS and Android has been limited. As video consumption continues it’s aggressive transition to these devices ad blocking is less of a reason to use ad stitching.
Additionally in desktop environments there are emerging solutions such as “secret media” that work around ad blockers while retaining client side fulfillment. Ad blocking on the router level with “Tomato” firmware or AdBlock Plus supplied blacklists, is a complicated technical task, and has been made more complex with the transition to https everywhere. For example iOS 9 recommends using https only for new apps. While lots of press is given to iOS 9 “ad block” support, it probably will have little impact on video experiences taking place in native apps, and ad playback within non-native was already hampered by Apple’s iOS native controls.
Device fragmentation was universally recognized as an inhibitor towards high quality consumer media delivery, and has largely been addressed by several industry infinitives. The transition to native application runtimes has enabled publishers to include their own “players” with first class Ad integration. For example Google’s exoPlayer on Android provides both HLS normalization and a reference DoubleClick integration and online video platforms have heavily invested in native player SDKs for easy video app creation. There is still a valid argument per fragmentation on streaming devices and smart TV’s. But even here, we are increasingly seeing “capable enough” HTML5 runtimes via hbbTV initiative, and on popular streaming devices such as Chromecast and Fire TV. The evolution of these platforms, to include a capable HTML5 runtime, enables syndication of player run-times and player business logic.
Live is a different story. Unlike VOD where fulfillment delays have a negligible impact on the user experience in a live broadcast frame accurate cuts are important as live content comes back from commercial break to immediate critical content. Likewise catchup-TV infrastructure can require block out or ad inserts on-top of existing ads prior to the content being segmented and re-ingested as “VOD” content. The value of client side heuristic for ad beaconing, interactivity are still important so working with a live ad stitching solution that is integrated with the player is important. This integration enables the player to consume ad timing, companion click through and ad viewing beacon targets from the server and handle them appropriately client side. Because native SDK integration is already needed for addressing fragmentation and client side ads, a holistic solution covering both client side and server side ad interactivity is important towards controlling integration costs for publishers that are streaming both live and VOD content.
Because of these unique requirements, live ad stitching is critical component as part of an overall solution that includes native SDKs and client side fulfillment for publishers and service providers that are making ad monetize live and VOD content available within distribution to native devices and set top boxes. And with all the recent vendor acquisitions in the market, especially around live linear workflows, ad stitching for live is going to become even more important in the monetization discussion moving forward.